Sunday, 23 October 2016

Meet Team Asthma

As the controversy lingers on over Bradley Wiggins legal use of the banned drug triamcinolone to treat his hay fever/allergies, let’s take a break from our British misery and take a look at Norway’s!  For they, too, are embroiled in doping stories.

In Norway, there has long been speculation that use of performance enhancing drugs for medicinal purposes is being abused in their national sport, cross-country skiing.

It is claimed that half of the large and dominant Norwegian national cross-country skiing team are asthmatic and are treated for such. It has earned them the moniker “Team Asthma”, according to a national television channel.

However, breathing problems aside, the Norwegians have been killing the opposition for years and so this has given rise to the oft asked question about asthma medication containing salbutamol, which is this. Could its use as a treatment for breathing difficulties also enhance performance beyond what would normally be expected?

That’s the conundrum with banned drugs athletes may be permitted to take for medicinal purposes during competition.

Why bother you with this story? Well, it so happens that in our house my wife and I are fans of the international cross-country skiing season. As soon as the cycling road season is over on Eurosport, we look forward to the contrast provided by this winter sport held under  blue skies against a backdrop of snow white forested slopes and mountains. So clean and refreshing….!

Cross-country skiing is huge in Norway and their massive team dominates the season.   They have far more athletes than Sweden, Finland, Poland, the USA, Canada, Russia, Italy and France, who also boast top names. Britain enjoys a small presence, too, albeit down the rankings.

It is interesting that cross country skiing has borrowed from cycling and since 2006-2007  the  annual Tour de Ski, one for men, one for women, is held over six to nine stages during December and January, in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

There is also a series of city centre sprint races which makes good TV. They also appear to have been modelled on cycling and attract huge crowds.

Now two of the Norwegian stars, it has been revealed, have tarnished their image over the, allegedly, inappropriate use of medication.

Both are national heroes.  The first to be named was Martin Johnsrud Sundby who has been stripped of his titles and banned for two months for taking “excessive” does of asthma medication.

WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, has now sharpened the rules on how much salbutamol, a substance contained in the medicine Ventolin, one gets to inhale.

From January 1, 2017, an athlete may  take 800 micrograms and not more often than every 12 hours. That dosage is considerably less than Sundby took, according to a WADA director, quoted by Agence France Presse (AFP) covering the story on NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster.  

The Wada director said Sundby took three doses totaling 15,000 micrograms over five hours before a competition. That amount is roughly 20 times as much as the newly set permissible dose of 800 micrograms every twelve hours.  

So that’s Sundby in the doghouse.

More recently,   Norway’s top woman cross-country skier Therese Johaug has joined him. Like Sundby, Johaug is a household name and she has tested positive for  the steroid clostebol .

Johaug is a seven-time world champion. She was Olympic gold medallist at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and took silver and bronze medals at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

In her defence, the Norwegian ski federation said that the drug was in a cream for her badly sunburnt lips - and given to her by a team doctor. 

Apparently, neither he nor Johaug spotted that the package – bought at a pharmacy in Italy - was clearly labelled with the legend “Doping” - circled with a red line struck through it!

It is being claimed in both cycling and cross-country skiing circles that professional competition can be so brutal as to induce asthma. Skiing races are often held over several consecutive days in temperatures of  -15 to -20C. (Any lower than -20 is bad for health and the competition is called off).

However,  claims of induced asthma have drawn scathing comments from  coaches who say they don't believe it. And some asthma sufferers say that going for a blast on skis in the freezing cold has actually reduced their asthma symptoms.

The story gets darker. AFP referred to another “unpleasant   revelation” into a “now-stopped clandestine research project”. This project involved some 40 healthy skiers, swimmers and athletes being given asthma medication despite not obtaining permission from the authorities.